A song beyond the pines and a session from dynamic duo Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, both tonight on Folkadelphia Radio

Lead Belly | Hulton Archive
Lead Belly | Hulton Archive

A folk song is a living organism. They are continually and constantly adapted and adjusted to fit new circumstances and environments. A few scant lines can grow over the years to become a rich fully developed narrative, incorporating specific facts and people from the contemporaries that alter it. Over time, these facts can disintegrate, losing meaning or relevance, so the song might be remolded anew – trimmed of verses, stripped back to basics, or combined with other narratives to create something wholly new. No one owns a folk song and that’s the most wonderful part about this whole thing. Like the flora and fauna around us, folk songs are for all to admire, revel in, and most importantly, interpret.

One song that has grown in meaning and length around the singers that have taken it up is “In The Pines.” Since its origination, sometime in the 1870s and probably somewhere in the Southern Appalachian region, the song has been transplanted from genre to genre, adapted, evolved, and changed to suit the singer’s interpretation. Also known as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and “Black Girl,” the history of “In The Pines” is as thick and layered as the pine tree’s bark. In a New York Times article from 1994, the author cites that a dissertation on the song found as many as 160 different versions. He continues on, positing the question: “Why does a song like ‘In The Pines’ endure and permutate so insistently?” In asking this question, I think we get close to the roots of what makes folk music important and enduring. It has to do with universality and accessibility; language may change, narrative elements may fall off, but emotion, grit, sweat and blood don’t wash away so easy. It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” “In The Pines” has been viewed in many different ways, but in each case, the mood is intensely dark, a place where “the sun never shines.”

“In The Pines” written and recorded history begins in 1917 when Cecil Sharp, a folklorist and song collector, printed the song as a verse and a melody,

“Black girl, black girl, don’t lie to me,
Where did you sleep last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines,
and shivered when the cold wind blows.”

It’s amazing that from these four lines, the song has taken on such varied meanings. Different versions include people fleeing implied seamy pasts into the equally seamy pines, which can be symbolic for crimes, sexual debasement, and, of course, death. In many versions, a “long train” factors into the story, acting in some cases as a stand-in for Death and in others a means of escape. In even more versions, there are traces of prostitution, existential questions, and brutally violent events (involving decapitation by said train). The narrative may change, but the feeling remains as cold, dark, and lonesome as when Cecil Sharp wrote down those four lines.

The most influential recording of “In The Pines” is associated with Lead Belly, recorded in 1944. Musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Link Wray, Odetta, Bill Callahan, Dee Dee Ramone, Nirvana, and countless others have tackled the song, imbuing it with new meaning each time. We’ll hear a few renditions tonight on Folkadelphia Radio.

Also during this episode, we’ll premiere a session from the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, recorded at the end of last year. The two were married in 1999 and have been performing together since 2000. In 2013, they released Wassaic Way, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, an album that draws on the two’s rich musical past and pushes their Americana rock sound in fun, new directions.


Celebrate the life of Kurt Cobain at Ortlieb’s on April 5th


As the 20th anniversary of his death approaches, fans and admirers of Kurt Cobain are making plans to celebrate the late Nirvana frontman’s “life and genius” at Ortlieb’s on April 5th.  There will be live videos of the band screening while Nothing’s Brandon Setta plays classic Nirvana tracks alongside other hits by the Seattle outfit’s peers.  The event is free and 21+, and you can get more information on the Facebook event page here.


Today in Philly music history: Nirvana headlined J.C. Dobbs in 1991

Collage of Nirvana at Dobbs, 10/1/91 |

Here’s a little slice of local rock lore: 22 years ago today, Nirvana headlined J.C. Dobbs’ for the second time, on tour in support of their newly-released Nevermind album. You can hear the entire set via YouTube below; according to the venue calendar you see pop up in the slideshow, the guys were performing (with The Melvins as an opening act) right after Scrawl headlined the venue and just before Yo La Tengo was set to play. Other events on the calendar, which may ring some bells with local music heads, include The Low Road, Dandelion, and the Mikey Wild Dance Party.

Additional tidbits and lore, per YouTube:

-The band requested extra monitors for the show because Kurt was sick with stomach pains, according to the venue’s publicist.
-The crowd was unhappy with the band’s choice not to play an encore, so they provoked the band with shouts of “sellouts!”

Listen to the set below, and check out the setlist after the jump. Previously: Happy 46th Birthday, Kurt Cobain! Watch Nirvana’s first Philly show at J.C. Dobbs in 1989.

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Tweet of the Moment: Dude who was in a little band called Nirvana is digging on Bleeding Rainbow

For some musicians, getting to meet one of your musical icons is more than enough. But having one of them say enjoy the the art you’re creating? Holy cow. Or, as Bleeding Rainbow put it when Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic tweeted about them last night, “!!!!!!!!&;$;&3′cidndncbbdn!!@.!:8/&:!;!!n?!?!!!!!!!!???!

It was pretty straightforward; Novoselic simply said “I like this band – Bleeding Rainbow” and linked to their Waking Dream 7″ on Bandcamp. But as anybody who has listened to music in the last 20 years knows, that’s a badass endorsement to have. Bleeding Rainbow manager Dryw Scully Instagrammed the tweet, saying “I never repost. But holy shit @rainbowbleeding that dude played bass in a band called Nirvana..” True that.

Bleeding Rainbow’s full-length Yeah Right is out on January 29 on Kanine Records, by the way, and it rules hard. Check out the video for “Drift Away” below.


Watch Best Coast cover Nirvana’s “About a Girl” (opening for Green Day at The Liacouras Center in January)

At their show last night in Brussels, Belgium, indie pop band Best Coast covered Nirvana’s “About a Girl.” Currently on tour in support of their sophomore album The Only Place, the band announced that beginning in January it will join Green Day on tour. The two bands will appear at the Liacouras Center at Temple on January 22nd. More ticket information for that show can be found here. Below, watch Best Coast perform “About a Girl.”


Download a cover of Nirvana’s “Dumb” by Ben Runyan of City Rain

Ever the spontaneous music maker, Ben Runyan of City Rain last night dropped a cover of Nirvana’s “Dumb,” a kinda-silly kinda-sad tune that closed out side A of In Utero. (Guess the Kurt Cobain shirt he wore to play a solo City Rain set at PhilaMOCA on Thursday night foreshadowed this a bit.) The original was built mostly around acoustic guitar and cello, so Runyan’s electronic pop treatment is a dramatic shift, but he maintains the vibe of the original, waiting till the halfway mark to kick the beat in and keeping the melancholy melody in the forefront. In the end, it sounds like an alt-rock nugget that was custom written for City Rain. Give a listen and download it below.


Happy 20th anniversary to Nirvana’s Nevermind; watch their set at J.C. Dobbs from July, 1989

Twenty years ago on September 24th, 1991, Nirvana released their seminal Nevermind. On October 1, 1991 they played at J.C. Dobbs. I was fortunate to be at the show. The song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was about to become a massive hit (thanks in part to the video the band made for it – see below) and you could feel the amazing energy in Dobbs that night as the band played. I remember thinking at the time that all of us were experiencing one of those rare “this is going to be really huge and potentially important kind of bands.” Turns out, we were right. You can download a bootleg of the show here via the Freedom Has No Bounds music blog. Below, watch Nirvana (as a four piece) from a show they performed at J.C. Dobbs in July, 1989.


Before They Were Famous: Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine At JC Dobbs

The wayback machine was in full effect last week when we got word that once legendary South Street rock club JC Dobbs was re-opening as The Legendary Dobbs. The office here was all abuzz with memories of seeing first time shows by bands like Nirvana, Soul Asylum, the Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine and Green Day. There were those of us who stood in long lines and didn’t get in to see Beck right before “Loser” went mega, and there were some of us who made it in to see Bo Diddley in June of 1987. Of course we all saw local heroes like George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Tommy Conwell and Robert Hazard like umpteen hundred times back in the day. The new Legendary Dobbs is slated to open to the public on December 18th. And if you really were in the audience for the two shows below, you’ll remember how incredible it was seeing this bands in that club.